If they don't believe their parents, maybe America's teens will listen to the Pentagon's top general.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey worried aloud Wednesday that the next generation of possible military recruits is ignorant about the damage that can come from showing bad or illegal behavior online.
"I worry a bit about ... the young men and women who are now in their teens, early teens, and who probably underestimate the impact of their persona in social media and what impact that could have later in life on things like security clearances and promotions" and so on, he told a conference in Washington.
He said military officials have been considering the idea of giving people a "second start. In other words ... say to young men and women, 'You know what, you probably exposed some things in your social media persona ... Twitter or Facebook ... that would disqualify you, actually, from service. But we're going to give you a shot at starting over ... if you agree from this point forward to live to the set of values that we describe.' "
Officials later said there is no formal proposal on the table. Rather, Dempsey was merely expressing the growing challenge the military and other employers face assessing their recruiting pools in the no-holds-barred environment of the Internet.
More than three-fourths of teenagers have a cellphone and use online social networking sites such as Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. Educators say kids have used their mobile phones to post everything from videos of school drug searches, to nude images of girlfriends or boyfriends. Most parents, they say, have no idea.
According to recent polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV, young people say digital "abuse" — such as taunting someone online or threatening them — remains prevalent. Young people also report that they aren't very offended by the slurs and mean-spirited videos they see on social networking sites that target minorities and overweight people.
But the recent polling also suggests that teens and young adults are less comfortable with the idea of circulating offensive posts and view digital abuse as a growing problem that society should address.
Technology also has been a complicating factor for the military's efforts to reduce incidents of sexual assault. There have been several sites on Facebook dedicated to posting offensive comments about female Marines, including posts that make light of violence against women. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has accused Marine Corps leadership of turning a blind eye to the posts, some of which appear to be made by on-duty Marines and which Speier says fosters a hostile work environment for women in the military.
The Marine Corps has said it won't tolerate behavior that intimidates its female recruits and has sent out warning letters when it believes one of its personnel has posted something offensive. But the Marines also have acknowledged that tracking down the authors of offensive posts can be difficult and time consuming.